Prisoner medical costs skyrocket, some call for medical paroles

By Eric Flack - bio | email

LaGrange, KY (WAVE) - $20,000,000. That's how much Kentucky taxpayers are shelling out this year to take care of sick and dying prison inmates. Health care costs in Kentucky's prisons are skyrocketing. And that's fueling a debate on whether the state should release prisoners with serious medical conditions in order to cut health care costs and save taxpayer dollars.

"The fastest growing group of inmates are geriatric inmates," said Dr. Robin Sublett, who supervises the hospice program at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange.

"And it costs a tremendous amount of money to treat them," she said.

KSR has a 120 bed nursing and hospice facility where the most ill inmates from across the state are brought to be cared for. The nursing facility is a place where escape is not an issue. Nurses outnumber guards. And life is a struggle both physically and financially.

KSR's medical expenses are budgeted for $20,433,100 in 2010. That's about 40% of the prison's $51,000,000 budget. The 120 bed nursing wing and hospice care facility rarely has an empty room or wheel chair.

Dr. Sublett said KSR's medical costs have jumped $3,000,000 in the past year alone.

"The money comes from you and I," Dr. Sublett said. "It comes from our taxes and it's taking more and more all the time."

Dr. Frederick Kemen, head of KSR's medical program, said one way to control costs is to increase the number of medical paroles: terminally ill inmates released early because they're in such bad shape. Dr. Kemen has recommended 22 medical paroles in the past 3 years but only 6 have been approved by the parole board.

"There are people we are providing total care for in nursing care who almost certainly could not re offend," Dr. Kemen said.

Michael Green is one of those inmates. Wheel chair bound and totally dependant on nursing care, Green who is serving 8 years for robbery, does not qualify for medical parole because he doesn't suffer from a terminal illness.

Green told us he spends his day in my bed or in front of the nurses station.

"Wheeling down the hall so I can build up my muscles," Green explained.

The way the laws in Kentucky are right now, only inmates within a year of dying can be granted medical release.

Some in Frankfort, including State Senator Kathy Stein, have fought for laws that would ease rules on medical parole to include inmates who are not deemed a threat. Stein believes the money saved could be shifted to other areas, like education.

But her bill was opposed by state prosecutors, including Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney Dave Stengel, and ultimately defeated.

"If you go on and start cutting these people loose that undercuts the whole system," Stengel said. "And I think it short changes the victims of crime."

Stengel also questions how much relief taxpayers would actually see by increasing the number of medical paroles, since most if not all of the released inmates would end up medicaid, which is facing it's own shortfalls.

"You're just dumping him on another agency," Stengel said.

Others argue Medicaid is a much larger pot of money, funded in part by federal dollars, so the savings would still be a help at the state level. And as the prison population continues to age, prison doctors believe Kentucky will eventually have to make a decision.

Force prisoners to pay their debt to society or force society to pay to comfort those inmates in their dying days.

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